When Paul Guenther was tasked with the unenviable task of replacing Mike Zimmer, few thought he was up to the task.
The former linebackers coach was not only becoming a defensive coordinator for the first time in 2014, but was replacing one of the greatest, if not the greatest, defensive mind the NFL has to offer.
Zimmer made the Bengals’ defense elite, and he kept them there for most of his tenure in the Queen City. What we saw on Sunday in Dallas was so bad that it was the first time that the Bengals trailed by 28-plus points since their 35-7 loss in Pittsburgh during the 2011 season.
But Guenther showed that he too could build a strong unit when the Bengals ranked second in scoring defense, fifth in opponent passer rating, third in interceptions, and ninth in sacks in 2015.
Unfortunately, Guenther’s unit has taken a big step backward after his defense was shredded on Sunday, so much so that it looked like the Cowboys were going against empty air at times. It was nothing short of an embarrassment, and it’s not something Guenther is going to stand by and continue to allow.
“We’ve got 11 more ballgames left and a lot of football to play. Last year we were sitting here, we won eight in a row,” Guenther said. “You can’t have games like that. It’s just uncharacteristic and quite honestly I was surprised how the game came out. I give Dallas credit. They beat us up front. They beat us. I give them credit.”
Guenther didn’t make any excuses, but he did point out that some players are still getting used to the new coaching staff. It’s easy to forget the Bengals have new secondary, linebackers, and defensive line coaches this season.
Having that much change will lead to growing pains, but it’s something Guenther and his defense have to work through.
“Some of the things with the new coaches, like I explained to you before, it's the first time going through some of these things,” Guenther said. “We made some adjustments at halftime that helped out. It's all part of it.”
After allowing three touchdowns in the first half, the Bengals’ defense returned to quickly allow a fourth touchdown on the Cowboys’ first offensive play of the half. But, that was the only touchdown the defense allowed in the second half.
“Like I told the coaches this morning, we've got to screw things down tighter and tighter now that we're understanding where our shortcomings are. We've got to screw them down tighter,” Guenther said.
As much talent and depth as this defense has, we probably shouldn’t expect to see the kinds of poor performance we saw in Dallas, even if they’re playing on the road against a good offense.
Speaking of, that’s exactly what the Bengals are facing this week when they match up against the Patriots in New England. But as tough of a challenge as this will be, it’s still just one game on a 16-game schedule
“It will be the hardest challenge probably have all year from our side of the ball, at least,” Guenther said. “It’s the next game. They all count the same. New England doesn’t count more than Dallas. It’s the next game. We have to understand that is a different offense going into it.”
Surprisingly, the Bengals defense still has some respectable rankings, including 13th in total defense, 11th in passing defense, and ninth in opponent completion percentage. That’s still not going to cut it against better teams, especially ones that have Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.
Still, as bad as Sunday was and as good as New England is, this defense should still play way better in New England if they just get some of their issues ironed out and actually come out prepared and focused, two things that seemed absent in Dallas.